Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Private Eye? No, Private Spy

When I bumped into New York author Joseph Finder last fall at Bouchercon in Baltimore, he told me that he was working on a new series. But (and this may have to do with his being a former intelligence officer) he was tight-lipped about the project. All I knew was that he was changing direction in his writing, from penning standalone corporate thrillers (such as Company Man and Power Play) to composing books that feature one character, corporate investigator Nick Heller. Knowing that I enjoy his work immensely, Finder assured me that I would receive one of the first advance reader’s copies off his new novel, Vanished.

While I waited impatiently for that review copy to reach me, I received word that the film rights to Finder’s groundbreaking 2004 novel, Paranoia, had been sold to a French company. Shortly thereafter, the e-book version of Paranoia reached the No. 1 spot on Amazon’s Kindle Chart. These developments were pleasant surprises to me, as Paranoia occupies a treasured place on my bookshelves.

Finally, Vanished came plopping down on my doorstep. Twice on the same day. Both Finder’s American editor, Keith Kahla of Minotaur Books, and his UK editor, Headline Publishing’s Vicki Mellor, sent me copies. Immediately, the novel went to the top of my review pile. I not only read the U.S. version of Vanished, but straight afterwards cracked the spine of its British cousin, noticing some minor tweaks for UK readers. Why read it twice in such close succession? Here’s part of my review from Shots:
Kicking off on a regional airfield outside of L.A., corporate security consultant Nick Heller is on the trail of $1 [billion] of U.S. funds that went missing while en route to Iraq. While back in Washington, it seems that Nick’s brother Roger, a high-powered M&A (mergers and acquisitions) corporate executive has “vanished,” leaving his wife, Lauren, in hospital following what appears to be a random mugging. Nick, despite his dislike of his brother, agrees to help uncover what happened to Roger, due to a plea from his nephew Gabe (Roger’s stepson). Utilizing all the resources Heller has via his working contacts, friends and people he meets, he spreads out his techno-web to try and discover what happened to his brother. During the investigation, we realize that Roger was working on a project that has a sinister side. It doesn’t help that Roger’s wife, Lauren (who also worked at Gifford Industries), is concealing something, and perhaps she knows more than she will reveal. [Meanwhile] Lauren’s son, Gabe, while working out his teenage angst, may also hold a key to the disappearance of his stepfather. The theme in Vanished is that no one is what they seem, and that “‘face values” can hide aspects of our lives that perhaps were better left concealed in the shadows.

Vanished is written with real compassion, while the backdrop is peppered with technology. The true merit of this novel is its heart, for the characters resonate with humanity and Heller is a decent man concealed behind a rock-hard exterior. There is no cardboard in sight, as all the characters are molded from flesh, despite the deployment of plenty of silicon devices. The novel is edited ruthlessly so there’s not a single wasted word rattling behind the slipstream of the narrative. Coupled with baited hooks carefully hanging at the end of each chapter; you’ll curse Finder for keeping you up into the early hours. Another interesting aspect is the peppering of insights into how our changing world interfaces dangerously with
new technology.
As I often do after finishing a novel that really engaged me, I called up its author. Finder patiently answered all of my questions, providing me with insight into his new book, his adventures on Twitter, his work in the film world, his recent foray into comic books, and his newfound love of Spanish chocolate and churros.

Ali Karim: First off, let me ask you the obvious question: After writing eight popular standalones, why did you decide to start a new series with Vanished?

Joseph Finder: I’d been wanting to do a series, with a continuing character, for a while, but I couldn’t figure out how. My editor and publisher and agent all urged me to do a series, because readers become quite loyal to series characters they like, and your readership can really grow that way. And whenever I’d do book signings, I’d meet readers who would tell me they really connected with one of my characters and wanted to know when and if he or she was coming back. My answer has always been, “Are you kidding? I can’t put those guys through it again! That’s cruel.”

I had other reasons to hesitate, too. I didn’t want to give up the turf that I’d discovered in my recent books, which reached so many readers (Paranoia was my first book to hit the New York Times hardcover bestseller list). I love that real-world yet shadowy world of intrigue and conspiracy within the world of the modern corporation. It felt modern and different and cool, to me anyway. How was a private eye going to work in that world? And I felt that private eyes and cops and CIA agents and the like have just been done so many times by so many talented writers. Private-eye series have been done to death since Hammett and Chandler, then Ross Macdonald and John D. McDonald. There didn’t seem to be much juice left in that lemon. If I was going to do a series hero, it would have to be something original. Otherwise, I’d get quickly bored.

So one day a couple of years ago I ran into a source of mine who’d been a high-ranking CIA officer for a long time. And he told me that he’d resigned from the Agency to go into the private sector. Now, he said, he was doing the same work--for the CIA, for corporations, for foreign governments, for politicians--that he used to do just for the CIA. But at three or four times the money. Turns out that the CIA has been outsourcing most of its intelligence work in the last few years. And my friend wasn’t alone: a lot of intelligence professionals (in the U.S. and the UK) have been leaving government work to go private.

So there I had it: the private spy. James Bond, but private. An updated Travis McGee (one of my all-time favorites), but without The Busted Flush. And when I realized how many great plots my hero--whom I named Nick Heller--could get involved in, I knew that I had something I could happily do for years. So far, so good.

AK: How did you come up with the name Nick Heller?

JF: Interesting question. The name just came to me. Later, one of my early readers pointed out that “Nick” was the hero of Company Man [2005] and Claire Heller was the hero of High Crimes [1998]. So maybe it was an unwitting homage to my earlier books. Or maybe I was just plagiarizing myself. Plus, doesn’t Heller connote “hell-raiser”? Sounds that way to me.

AK: How supportive were your British and American publishers about this change of writing direction?

JF: They were all, without exception, delighted to hear it. My U.S. and UK agents, too. I did tell them, however, that I might do the occasional standalone, and they were OK with that--just so long as I kept doing Nick Heller. I told them I’d keep writing Nick Heller books until I got bored, because when a writer gets bored with his literary creations, a reader can always tell.

AK: In Vanished, you alternate between the first-person perspective, with Nick Heller, and third-person. Did you find those switches difficult to juggle?

JF: Not really. Writers far more skilled than I have written great novels with alternating points of view. F. Scott Fitzgerald did it in Tender Is the Night. Ann Patchett, in Bel Canto, switches POV within paragraphs, but it somehow works. Still, it’s considered a bit unorthodox, and it does bother some purists. But I think readers are fine with shifting narrative perspectives, just so long as it’s not confusing. And from my standpoint, it was necessary, because I was unwilling to give up the narrative pleasures of a standalone novel. Here’s what I mean: when you read a standalone, you don’t know whether your hero is going to make it. (Well, you do, actually--how often is the hero killed? But on some level you believe your hero might die. Rationally or not.) Also, and perhaps more important, the hero in a standalone goes through a dramatic arc: he’s a very different person at the end than he is at the beginning. Well, you can’t do that with a series character. He can’t change significantly in each book, right? So I decided I wanted to try something a bit unusual: to introduce, in each series novel, a different protagonist through whose eyes we see the story, rendered in third-person. And Nick Heller’s story would always be told in first-person. I haven’t seen that done all that often in a series, which was another reason to try it. And that way I was guaranteed to produce a thriller each time, and not just a mystery.

AK: The difference being ...?

JF: A mystery is a whodunit. A thriller is a howdunnit. A mystery is about solving a crime. A thriller is about the protagonist’s
dangerous adventure.

AK: Despite this new novel’s high-tech backdrop, Heller is very human behind his tough exterior. So which came first for you, the plot or the character?

JF: Definitely the character. All novels are about characters. Even when I write standalones, where the premise comes first, I can’t start plotting or writing until I figure out the character. Believe me, I love a great plot, and I work awfully hard at devising clever ones. But clever plots can never substitute for a character that readers
fall in love with.

AK: I found Vanished to be a very fast read, even though it offers huge insights into the darker side of the corporate world. But when compared with your standalones, was this also a fast book to write?

JF: That’s hard to say, because it took me a while to figure out not only Nick but his biography and family. Plus I had to do some extensive research into what a “private spy” does, and how. And you know me--I love delving into secrets so that my readers get inside information they can’t get anywhere else. I did a lot of that with Vanished. But once I had the tools assembled, the work went pretty fast.

AK: The start of a series always poses an issue: you don’t want to allow the back story to slow the narrative. Heller’s back story is drip-fed in this book, very intriguing, and integral to the plot. Heller’s father, Victor, is an interesting character in a Bernie Madoff sort of way. How did you manage to work your back story into the plot without it hobbling the narrative?

JF: Thank you. I thought a lot about that. I hate encountering undigested globs of back story when I read a novel. So I thought of the novel as, narratively, like a movie: give the readers/viewers only just enough to understand and bond with Nick by titrating his story in drop by drop. After all, this is only the first Nick Heller book. I don’t want to give away his whole back story in one novel. I have to save stuff up for the next ones.

AK: What is it about the dark side of the corporate world that attracts you and that makes it an exciting backdrop for thrillers?

JF: It started with Paranoia. I wanted to do a classic spy novel, à la John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but set it in a high-powered but very cool corporation. But I knew nothing about the corporate world. So I started visiting companies like Apple Computer and Hewlett-Packard, interviewing all sorts of executives and secretaries, poking around, getting the sort of real-world texture that anyone who actually works in a corporation stops seeing because it’s so routinized. To me, though, it was all new and fascinating. I felt like an anthropologist doing field work in Fiji: all the natives were strange and different, and their tribal customs were peculiar.

And I realized two things. One was that the corporate world was not at all a bland, colorless, hostile place. This is where most of us work, and most of us basically enjoy our work lives. In fact, we spend more time at work than we do at home. Work has become family in some ways. So I needed to render the appeal of it--what was cool about it--and not just what could be scary about it.

The other thing was that, in the corporate world, the stakes can be immense. When it comes to billions of dollars, people will do some really bad things if they have to. And when you work somewhere and something really bad is going on and no one’s telling you anything--well, that breeds some powerful paranoia. Michael Crichton showed this in Disclosure and Airframe--there’s some fantastic intrigue in the corporate world. Anyone who thinks the corporation is a boring setting doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

AK: There was close to a two-year gap between Power Play [2007] and Vanished. What happened? You used to be a book-a-year author.

JF: That was because of all the research I had to do into the work of the “private spy”--what these guys really do and how they do it. I wanted to get the world right, particularly since I was going to keep going back to this well, year after year. That added several months to my writing cycle, which I considered the start-up costs of the series. So my publishers decided to delay the launch of the series by a whole year. That gave them a nice long lead time to get the word out about the series, so the launch would be as strong as possible.

AK: How tough is it to balance your writing and all of the promotional work that now comes with publishing books?

JF: I find it quite difficult. The more successful I get, the more travel I have to do, the more interviews, the more events. And believe me, I’m not complaining--I’m extremely grateful that anyone cares. It’s sort of nice to think that, even in this era of Facebook and Twitter, and with every author having a Web site and being accessible by e-mail, people still want to meet writers. So I’m happy to do all that. I just have to be really careful to defend the boundaries of my writing life, so that when I need to go to ground, I can do it.

AK: Are you still working in the journalism field? And what are your thoughts on the current state of print journalism?

JF: For several years I swore I’d never do journalism again, since I’d become a novelist. But because of my intelligence expertise--the research I’ve done, the contacts I’ve made--I’m increasingly asked to write pieces. It’s so much faster these days, with Web sites like The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post, and with the separate Web presences of magazines like Time, Newsweek, and Forbes. There’s a great hunger for content. The [electronic publications] don’t edit your stuff to death. (Of course, that’s a mixed blessing: a lot of the stuff that appears on blogs and Web sites sure needs some
serious editing.)

I’m actually extremely worried about the state of print journalism. Not just because I love newspapers, but for other reasons as well. Newspapers and magazines give you an experience you can’t get on the Internet: serendipity. You come across articles you’d never search out on the Internet. And there’s just no substitute for the very expensive news bureaus and in-depth investigative reporting of our finest newspapers. We are losing something extremely important, I fear.

AK: One of my favorite novels is Paranoia. I hear that you’ve now sold the film-making rights to that book. Can you provide any more details of the sale?

JF: Yes, it has [been sold]. A few years ago it was optioned by Paramount, which developed several screenplays, including a great one (I thought) by Michael Tolkin, who wrote that excellent Hollywood movie The Player. But there was a change at the top of Paramount and it went into turnaround as a result ... the typical story. My agent was determined to avoid that happening [again], if at all possible. So when the CEO of the French movie company Gaumont contacted him and told him he was in love with that book, and made a strong case for why he could actually get the movie made, my agent asked me to meet him and talk, which I did. He wanted to make an American movie, with American stars and an American director, in English--but with most of the financing coming from France. Since the biggest hurdle in making a movie is always the financing, I thought that sounded pretty good to me. Then I got on the phone with the screenwriter they hired, a very smart guy named Barry Levy, who wrote Vantage Point, a clever and well-written movie (even if it wasn’t a big commercial success). So I was reassured. Then again, this being Hollywood, it’s all a crapshoot. We’ll see.

AK: With a couple of reservations, I enjoyed the 2002 movie High Crimes, which was adapted from your 1998 novel of the same name. While filming was going on, didn’t you get a chance to meet stars Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman?

JF: I sure did. The director, Carl Franklin, invited me to play a small part, as a featured extra, so I did five days of shooting, met Ashley and hung out some with Morgan Freeman around the crafts-services table. A very cool experience to act in a movie made from your own book. Very Escher-like, if you know what I mean.

AK: Is it true that Company Man was retitled in some countries, as it was suggested that it could be misunderstood as some sort of business textbook?

JF: I’m not sure why it was retitled, as it was in the UK, where it was renamed No Hiding Place. But I know that I’m always getting grumpy letters from readers telling me that they just bought that book and, damn it, they’d already read it when it was called Company Man!

AK: Tell us how you’re getting on at Headline Publishing in the UK, and something about its plans for the Nick Heller novels.

JF: I love Headline. Vicki Mellor, their crime-fiction editor, is super-smart and extremely savvy and enthusiastic. They’ve done a really impressive job already with Power Play, the first in my contract with them. Headline, like only a few other publishers in the UK (one of them being Little, Brown and the other being Transworld), understand the effectiveness of the slow and steady build. They have long-range plans and are very strategic about it, and they fully intend to make me at least as big a seller in the UK as I am in the U.S. And--knock wood--I’m convinced they’re going to do it.

AK: So you’ll stick with Nick Heller novels for the time being?

JF: For the foreseeable future--which for me is the book I’m writing now and the one after that, which is starting to take shape in my head. I’m thinking only about doing Nick Heller books. I love writing this character. But if an idea comes to me that just won’t work as a Nick Heller, I’ll do a standalone.

AK: Tell us about The Cowl, the comic book you worked on with writer Brian Azzarello, and its relationship to Vanished.

JF: This was a very cool story, and it started with research. I was at Bouchercon, the annual U.S. mystery convention, while I was working on Vanished, and I had a subplot in the book involving Nick’s 16-year-old nephew, Gabe, who’s secretly writing and illustrating a “graphic novel.” He gives it to Nick at one point, and it turns out to reveal something very important concerning the boy’s father, which helps Nick solve the big overhanging
mystery of the story.

But I knew nothing about how comics are really done. So there I was at Bouchercon, talking to my friend Jason Starr [Panic Attack], in fact, when he pointed out a couple of guys from DC Comics. I went up to them and asked if they’d mind giving me a quick “Comics for Dummies” course, which they did. One of them was a senior editor at DC Comics, Will Dennis. The other was a comic-book writer named Brian Azzarello. I had no idea who Brian was.

When I talked to my editor later and mentioned I had met some guy named Brian Azzarello, he said, “You don’t know who Brian Azzarello is? He’s only one of the most brilliant comic writers alive.” He’s the author of the 100 Bullets series and, better known to those of us who don’t regularly read comics, of The Joker, which is twisted and dark and brilliant, and is the basis of The Dark Knight.

Azzarello and I e-mailed back and forth, and I became increasingly interested in the modern comics world. I asked him what he thought about the idea of taking Gabe’s fictional comic from Vanished and turning it into an actual comic. And he said not only did that sound cool, but he’d be willing to write it himself. Meanwhile, Will Dennis, the DC editor, found me an amazingly talented artist who lives in Spain, named Benito Gallego, who drew in the style of some of the Silver Age comics artists like Joe Kubert and John Buscema. Names that mean nothing to you if you aren’t a comics reader, but are legendary if you are. The comic that these guys produced is called The Cowl, and it’s set in a dystopian future Washington, D.C. It’s shorter than an average comic book, but I think it’s darkly brilliant.

AK: Many other thriller writers, such as David Morrell, Richard K, Morgan, and Victor Gischler, have worked in the comics field. So will you start writing comics now?

JF: No plans at the moment. Azzarello and I have been toying with an idea for a series, but we’re both over-committed, so we’ll see.

AK: Last year you served as a head judge for the 2008 Thriller Awards, handling the Best Novel nominees. What sort of work did you face in that position?

JF: It involved reading hundreds of novels, which was incredibly time-consuming. There was plenty of crap, but there were also a lot of really good thrillers. The problem my fellow judges and I faced was how to choose among some very different sorts of thrillers--romantic suspense, action, military, high-tech, quiet and literary, fast and gripping. We ended up choosing Robert Harris’ The Ghost, which is a wonderful book. But there were other novels equally good that year, to be honest. They just didn’t grip everyone in the same way.

AK: I guess, considering your interest in high tech, that it shouldn’t be a surprise to find you on Twitter. How are you getting on there?

JF: I started on Twitter for purely promotional reasons, at the suggestion of my publisher. But I learned very quickly that it’s a true community. I learn all kinds of things, get links to articles I ordinarily wouldn’t have come across, and I connect to some really interesting, clever people. I’ve become reluctant to be too promotional, except when I’m passing along good news that I think they might be interested in. My only problem with Twitter is that it’s
dangerously addictive.

AK: I saw that you “tweeted” while in Spain recently. Tell us
about your travels there.

JF: It was great. I went there to do some publicity for the Spanish edition of Power Play, but also to see Barcelona with my wife and daughter, which we loved. And my Twitter friends (“followers” is the word, which sounds cult-like) recommended restaurants that turned out to be wonderful. And a number of them ordered me to try churros and chocolate, which I’d never had before. I left Barcelona a lot heavier as a result.

AK: Can you supply any hints of what’s in store for Nick Heller in his forthcoming second adventure?

JF: Just that Nick has moved to Boston. I’m in the middle of writing it right now, and I really hate stopping work to do anything else.

AK: Are you going on tour for Vanished? I know you attended ThrillerFest in New York a couple of years back. Do you have plans to attend Bouchercon in Indianapolis this fall?

JF: I go to Bouchercon and ThrillerFest. I really enjoy both of them, particularly because it gives me the chance to reconnect with my fellow writers, whom I love spending time with. My U.S. tour this year is fairly short, because apparently August is a lousy time to do book signings. And I believe I’ll be touring the UK in February
or so for Vanished.

AK: Finally, what books have you enjoyed recently?

JF: A long list, far too many. The latest from Lee Child and Harlan Coben, of course, which are both excellent. As are the latest from Lisa Gardner and Lisa Scottoline. Gregg Hurwitz’s Trust No One. Mark Sullivan’s Triple Cross. Steve Berry’s The Paris Vendetta. All really good. Sean Black’s Lockdown is fast-paced and totally gripping. I know I’m going to accidentally omit some of my favorites. Of course, I’ve definitely left out the ones I didn’t like.

* * *

For more information about Joseph Finder, click here. An excerpt from Vanished can be found here, and a video of him discussing that novel is available here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great comprehensive interview! Mahalo and ALOOOHA! :)